One of the unexpected pleasures in going through a number of books on language origin was coming across the following passage from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ (CLS) Introduction à l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss, which I remembered vaguely but had never examined seriously as a statement about the origin of language.
Whatever may have been the moment and the circumstances of its appearance in the ascent of animal life, language can only have arisen all at once. Things cannot have begun to signify gradually. In the wake of a transformation which is not a subject of study for the social sciences, but for biology and psychology, a shift occurred from a stage when nothing had a meaning to another stage when everything had meaning. Actually, that apparently banal remark is important, because that radical change has no counterpart in the field of knowledge, which develops slowly and progressively. In other words, at the moment when the entire universe all at once became significant, it was none the better known for being so, even if it is true that the emergence of language must have hastened the rhythm of the development of knowledge. So there is a fundamental opposition, in the history of the human mind, between symbolism, which is characteristically discontinuous, and knowledge, characterised by continuity. Let us consider what follows from that. It follows that the two categories of the signifier and the signified came to be constituted simultaneously and inter-dependently, as complementary units; whereas knowledge, that is, the intellectual process which enables us to identify certain aspects of the signifier and certain aspects of the signified, one by reference to the other—we could even say the process which enables us to choose, from the entirety of the signifier and from the entirety of the signified, those parts which present the most satisfying relations of mutual agreement—only got started very slowly. It is as if humankind had suddenly acquired an immense domain and the detailed plan of that domain, along with a notion of the reciprocal relationship of domain and plan; but had spent millennia learning which specific symbols of the plan represented the different aspects of the domain. The universe signified long before people began to know what it signified; no doubt that goes without saying. But, from the foregoing analysis, it also emerges that from the beginning, the universe signified the totality of what humankind can expect to know about it. What people call the progress of the human mind and, in any case, the progress of scientific knowledge, could only have been and can only ever be constituted out of processes of correcting and recutting of patterns, regrouping, defining relationships of belonging and discovering new resources, inside a totality which is closed and complementary to itself. (Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, tr. Felicity Barker, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950, p. 60-61. Italics mine.)
It is fascinating to reflect on the similarities and differences between this passage and the conception of language origin presented by the originary hypothesis. CLS is not at all interested in the worldly circumstances of this originary moment, which he presents as a transcendent revelation rather than a gradual emergence from animal communication systems, indeed, one that is “not an object of study for the social sciences, but for biology and psychology.” Hence his idea of all at once is very different from that of GA. The difference lies precisely in the absence of a link between the significant and the sacred, between the abstract category of being the potential object of a sign and the infinitely particular category of possessing a transcendental significance, not simply as a (biological) “value,” since its possession is interdicted, but as something new: a meaning.
CLS’s “revelation” is not made to anyone in particular about anything in particular; it is an entirely intellectual event, the kind of discovery depicted in cartoons by a shining light bulb. It is a bit like Archimedes discovering his “principle” in his bathtub, but as CLS is at pains to point out, it is wholly unlinked to worldly knowledge. For this idea of universal application is not about “reality”—it is transcendental. It gives rise to no knowledge, but to an infinite possibility of knowledge, allowing us to use the indefinite multiplication of signs to manipulate ideas and to seek to discover their connections. Already implicit in this discovery is the possibility of science, the construction of laboratories where such connections could be tested—and still more generally, of everything, religion excepted, that distinguishes us from our fellow creatures.
CLS cannot be said to be suggesting, like Chomsky and some of his followers, that the revelation he describes took place in a single mind. He is simply indifferent to the circumstances of the birth of significance and rejects the temptation to create a scenario, plausible or otherwise, for its occurrence. Since signification is revealed entirely as an instrument, it has no originary content, and it therefore can be described as though it were a matter of indifference whether it was revealed to one person or ten million. CLS’ point is simply that human language, the use of signs, must have begun at some point, and since the signifier-signified relationship that makes the sign possible is in itself indifferent to its components, its application to anything immediately implies that it must apply to everything.
Here we have precious proof that social science cannot grasp the event of language origin because it is simply indifferent to it (“not an object of study”), even when it has the clear intuition that this origin was indeed a punctual event and not a gradual series of improvements to our cognitive and signaling abilities. In contrast with Max Müller’s intuition of the originary identity of the sacred and the significant in the word for sun, one is tempted to say that CLS, in the spirit of a certain anthropology of “primitive” religion, sacralizes everything. But no; it is a purely logical matter. Now that we have signs, we cannot help applying them to, thinking about the world, like Adam let loose in God’s creation and about to give names to the objects of nature.
Thus CLS’s affirmation that “The universe signified long before people began to know what it signified” should be read not to mean that it “always already” signified. He means simply that once humans have language, they see the whole universe as potentially significant, but that the worldly–cognitive content of this significance, that is, the way things fit together, the laws of nature, which are in CLS’ phrase “what it signified,” remain to be discovered. Once we have signs, we have the task of ferreting out the articulations of the universe from what William James called its “blooming, buzzing confusion.”
The reader familiar with GA cannot fail to have noted the diametrical contrast between the proposition of the originary hypothesis that language begins with a single sign designating the single sacred-significant being in the universe and CLS’s presentation of the notion of signification/significance as applying to the entire universe from the outset. Yet these two conceptions are not as far apart as they appear.
CLS’ idea is an abstract one: the idea of “significance,” meaning having-a-sign-for, inherently applies to everything. If there are not words for “everything,” it is because not everything is significant in the sense of being worthy to speak about, but in principle we can always find, or invent, a sign for any item.
In contrast, the originary sacred distinguishes one object in contrast to everything else. Yet it is obvious with respect to signification that, unique as the first sign may have been, its uniqueness was not essential to it; if you can have one sign, then you can have a million.
One might object that, given Durkheim’s key distinction between sacred and profane, the first sign defines everything else than the central object as “profane,” unworthy of signification. No doubt this distinction in religious practice serves to establish a “sacred space,” that is, a scene, that reproduces the originary revelation. Yet the “profane” instruments of everyday life are not thereby deprived of importance, of potential significance. Genesis presents the things of this world not as opposed to the sacred but as derived from it, as elements of God’s “good” creation. And as humans extended significance from the unique center to the other objects of the world via what I called in TOOL the “lowering of the threshold of significance,” these objects come to be revealed as having been from the outset potentially worthy of being assigned a sign.
The difference is one of anthropological perspective. CLS, as a “real” anthropologist, is not interested in speculating about an imaginary scenario for the birth of signification, but merely insists that once the idea of the sign, signifiant/signifié, exists, it applies in principle to everything that we can conceive, ideal objects as well as real. But if we seek a model of the event by which this idea might have appeared, it is only understandable as a new idea if we conceive it as applying, first of all, to some single thing that stands in a new relationship to the human group, a relationship that we can call the “sacred,” and that is also the significant.
The view of signification appearing like the light bulb is diametrically opposed to René Girard’s idea of the origin of the human and its signifying capacity in “emissary murder.” As opposed to CLS’ eirenic scenario, Girard views mimetic violence as in itself a sufficient model of the origin of human culture, which emerges as the murder is succeeded by the controlled lynchings of sacrifice, of which language is merely a secondary accompaniment. For CLS, everything is significant; for Girard, significance emerges from the body of the—necessarily human—victim, although the progress of culture will lead to the substitution of (edible) animals for the cadaver he postulates. In one, the “idea” begins as transcendent-in-itself; for the other, even a linguistic sign would be too abstract. Girard thought of language as a secondary development of emissary sacrifice, with the remains of the victim supplying the first “transcendental signifier”—however such a “signifier” may conceivably be related to those of human language.
After reading chapter after chapter seeking to explain the emergence of human language through the evolution of the categories of mature language, with never an event to mark the passage from the prehuman to the human state, I have found only in Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox (Pantheon, 2019—see Chronicle 614), which treats language itself as a gift of the gods yet ironically offers an explanation for its emergence closer to the originary hypothesis than any other, a focus on Girard’s key revelation of the violent potential of mimetic rivalry. What better proof is there that the subject of language origin is too important to be left to the specialists?
Before I could construct the scene of the originary hypothesis, I needed the revelatory light bulb of signification to supply the différance of its potentially violent mimetic motivation. I have many times acknowledged the contributions to the originary hypothesis of Girard (mimetic violence) and Jacques Derrida (deferral/différance). Yet, curiously enough, neither Girard nor Derrida conceives of the birth of the human as an event. Both are—in very different ways—prisoners of the toujours-déjà: Derrida because his notion of différance is just a bit too clever in combining the human non-act of deferral (différer) with the abstract category of difference, which applies just as well to electrons and protons; Girard, because he views human self-consciousness as dawning slowly, independently of language, and only being fully realized with the coming of Christ.
Maybe CLS didn’t care about where, when, and to whom the light bulb first lit up, but he nonetheless had the intuition, absent not just from our two master thinkers but from all recent specialized writing on the subject, that human language is not just different but of an altogether different species than animal “language,” that this difference consists in adding a transcendental dimension to the world of prehuman reality, and that the revelation of transcendence cannot be conceived as a gradual progression.
So let me add to the duo of Girard and Derrida the name of Claude Lévi-Strauss, 20th-century France’s most distinguished anthropologist, as the man who threw the switch. Merci, maître!